The Blight Chronicles, Part I

Grumble, grumble, shuffle, spit. Unlike most perusing this magazine, I am sick of food. I am sick of worrying about it, sick of thinking about it, reading about it, going to lengthy dinners made lengthier by everyone talking about it. This is post-mortem time for me, when the season is put to bed, mostly. There is not so much picking
and fieldwork; instead it is wrap-up and put away and think.

In 2009, the Northeast sustained an outbreak of late blight. This was the first time in my career that I had to farm through such challenging conditions. In June, the disease was confirmed to have wiped out a commercial planting on the North Fork and large gardens were gone in Bridgehampton. It was raining again and there was nothing else for us to do but try to allay or confirm our fears.
Dean and I decided to drive around Sagg and look at other farmer’s fields. As we neared a field that was rumored to be suspicious, I began to shake. My heart pounded in my ears so hard that I was partially deafened to outside noise. I began to sputter, my voice getting shrill with panic, as I fretted aloud. My brother looked
at me, “Now you’ve got to chill out!” he barked. And then sternly, “Christ, it’s only tomatoes.” Then, less sternly, “Or potatoes.”
In 2011 the Northeast was hit by blight again. There are some garden pests, viral, bacterial and even animal that a farmer can endure.
I believe a little illness can be good for the overall immune system. Phytophthora means plant destroyer. In a place like Sagaponack, with our heavy fogs and morning dews, with our persistent, often damp breeze, a little blight is all you need to start a devastating war of man versus fungi. I like to believe I do all I can do—homegrown plants, monitored for vigor all spring, are staked and trellised. I spray.
But in the end my success in surviving an outbreak will depend on my neighbors’ success. My neighbors are not only farmers. Empty houses with automatic sprinklers in their kitchen gardens and no one monitoring real need, such vectors line almost every field.
This year, toward the middle of June, on the eighth day with “nospray” conditions, a neighboring farmer stopped by to tell me he had blight in his tomatoes. It was a pretty big spot. I told him how sorry I was to hear this, wished him luck and then, after he’d left, I succumbed to a set of anxiety-sparked dry heaves. It was late in the day, so I considered not running to the shop and sharing the bad news with my brother. Why not let him have one more, decent night’s sleep?
But misery needed company. I raise two acres of tomatoes—Dean’s got one hundred and fifty of potatoes. He’d want to know. All the employees have gone home, I find him in the machine room—the barn where custom parts are made to save the day—he’s calmly working on something. For the next half hour we talked about management
strategy. We talked about effective fungicides and we talked about windows of opportunity; would there ever be one? What if it just keeps raining? We have no machines for fixing weather. What am I going to do? Outside, the drenching sky is turning to night.
Dean reaches down under the cluttered desk that doubles as a workbench. He lifts and opens an elegant blue box that holds a gift from last Christmas. Snuggled down on a sapphire pillow is a special edition of some very fine scotch. “We could get in the bottle?”
This scene between us, drinking high-end stuff out of Styrofoam cups, might seem sordid or sinful for more than one reason. I know we should have had glasses. But worse, I know of many farms that were lost to alcohol. After a few hard seasons, I more fully understand the smooth liquor’s persuasive draw. We check to see our cups aren’t melting, and then toast our fortunate lot. 2011 went on to be the wettest year on record.
I am often asked what I do in the winter—after I’ve finished with cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts and other fall crops that have their own set of diseases caused by too much rain. Winter is short, really just December. I spend the month writing personal agricultural parodies of Broadway and popular tunes. My sister and I then turn
the material into a one-performance, no-rehearsal puppet show. The song I’ve been singing, in my head from May to November, is usually sung by an optimistic orphan. In my production it will be an emotional farmer consulting Cornell Cooperative Extension.
Editor’s note: This is the first part in an emotional series about blight. Tune in for the next installment when we will learn where the local blight came from, how the Fosters’ tomatoes and potatoes fared and what they are doing to prevent blight next tomato and potato season.